“What do the figurines represent? Any relationship between size and age of people represented etc.?”
We were asked the question on our earlier post 石見銀山 and have taken some time to consider an answer… The truth is that we are guesstimating based on experiences, things we have seen and read, we cannot say for absolute certain.
The general term for these figures is rakan 羅漢 (lit. Worthy One) and they represent a Buddhist that has achieved the highest rank, with wisdom on a level with Buddha, perhaps a state between human and god. For this reason they don’t necessarily represent age, more likely emotion. Happiness brought by achieving a state of Nirvana perhaps or agony at the inability to leave behind human troubles of pain and disease.
The reason of the steps is of course a practicality and necessity to best display the statues but could also have hierarchical meaning. Perhaps the layers higher and further back are actually closer to leaving this world; closer to become a part of Buddha.
You can see rakan like these in many temples but on this same day we saw a very special collection of 500 figurines, housed in caves carved from the rock in an area near the mine. The temple was called Rakan-Ji 羅漢寺 and of course it is not good to photograph such an extremely sacred space. What made these 500 statues so unusual was that they were painted bright colours and carved with exaggerated, more human emotion, they appeared to be laughing and talking amongst themselves. It was said that you will find the face of any departed friend or relative among the statues as they remain in transition between this life and the next.